On past Simchas Torah I spoke in my synagogue, Kahal Bnei Matisyahu, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on the topic of “Our Takeaway From Simchas Torah and the Entire Yomim Noraim and Sukkos Season.” My revered rebbe and teacher, the gaon HaRav Dovid Kviat, zt”l – rosh yeshiva of Brooklyn’s Mirrer Yeshiva and author of Sukkas Dovid Al HaTorah, Al HaTalmud, and Al HaMo’ados – offers many insights on this topic, but for now I will mention just one one.
Rav Kviat asks what is meant by “sisu v’simchu b’Simchas Torah – rejoice and be joyous on Simchas Torah.” Why “sisu” and “simchu”? He answers that “sisu” refers to the new Torah cycle and “simchu” refers to the one that just passed. Why connect the two? Because, Rav Kviat suggests, without reflecting on what has passed, we cannot properly move forward.
Our sages (Avot 2:10) adjure us, “Shuv yom echad lifnei misatcha – Repent one day before you die.” R Eliezer (Shabbos 153a) asks: “Does a person know when he will be called before his maker? Of course not. Therefore, to fulfill this dictum, a person should repent constantly throughout his life. We tend to think that once the annual period of repentance has passed, and the slate is clean, all our worries are over. As a result, we let down our guard and unfortunately pile up fresh transgressions.
With this thought in mind, we present the following five divrei Torah by Rabbi Dr. Zecharia Senter, founder and CEO of KOF-K Kosher Supervision, a talmid of HaRav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, and the holder of a PhD degree in mathematics.
Confessing To Ourselves?
“To confess,” in Hebrew, is “l’hisvados” – which is a reflexive verb. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, asked why the reflexive form is used for this verb. This form always implies that the one who does the action is also the one to whom the action is done – e.g., “l’hi’shamer” (to guard oneself), “l’hisrachatz” (to wash oneself), and “l’hislabeish” (to dress oneself).
But we don’t “confess to ourselves.” We confess to G-d! Likewise, when we pray ,we pray to G-d, not to ourselves. Why, then, do we use the reflexive verb, “l’hispallel”?
Rav Soloveitchik answered that when we genuinely and properly connect to Hashem, we actually change who we are. Our Sages say that when we daven, we should try to feel as if we are standing before the Throne of Glory. If we achieve that feeling, it will influence us. The same is true of viduy. If we say viduy properly, we not only confess our sins; we actually change ourselves.
The Rambam, in his laws of teshuvah, states that viduy must begin with the word “ana – please.” Thus, when Moshe acknowledged the sin of the Golden Calf on behalf of Klal Yisrael, he said, “Anah, chatah ha’am hazeh chatah gedolah – Please, this nation did a grievous sin” (Exodus 32:31), and when the kohen gadol would say viduy on Yom Kippur, he would begin, “Anah, Hashem, chatasi, avisi, pashati l’fanecha… – Please, Hashem, I have sinned. I have transgressed. I have committed iniquity before You…”
But how does it make sense to say “please” before acknowleding sins? Shouldn’t we reserve this word for requests – e.g., when we ask Hashem for forgiveness?
The answer is as follows: One of the hardest things in the world is acknowledging that we did wrong. The natural tendency is to hesitate or excuse oneself by saying, “It was really not my fault. Someone else is to blame!” So we say “please” before acknowledging our sins as a way of asking G-d for the ability and courage to recognize our guilt. “Please give me the inner spiritual strength to acknowledge that I have faults that need to be forgiven.”
Before we ask for forgiveness, we must ask G-d to help us look deep inside ourselves to know what we need to improve so that we will become better people.
Death Is Not Final
At Yeshiva University, I once had a position for the the High Holidays leading an adjunct minyan in the Bronx at a shul run by the father of Rabbi Hershel Schachter. I was asked to speak before Yizkor on Yom Kippur and asked my wife’s zeide, Rav Moshe Aaron Poleyeff, zt”l, for help. He told me the following:
Parshas Shoftim includes the mitzvah of the eglah arufah, which requires killing a calf when someone is found murdered on the outskirts of a town. After the calf is killed, the town’s elders state: “Kapeir l’amcha Yisrael asher padisa, Hashem, v’al titein dam naki b’kerev amcha Yisrael – Forgive your nation Yisrael that you have redeemed, Hashem, and do not place innocent blood in the midst of Your people, Yisrael” (Deuteronomy 21:7-8).
A Midrash expounds on this verse: “ ‘Kapeir l’amcha Yisrael – these are the living; ‘asher padisa Hashem’ – these are the dead. Mikan she’hameisim tzerichim kaparah – From here we see that both the living and the dead need atonement.”
The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch of Rav Shlomo Ganzfried, zt”l, states that this Midrash serves as explanation for why we say Yizkor on Yom Kippur. We want Hashem to forgive not just us, but those who have passed on too.
But why say Yizkor every year? We should say it the year after a parent passes away and that’s it. It’s not like the deceased could have comitted any additional sins in the year since Yizkor was last said. He or she is in Gan Eden!
Rav Poleyeff answered that those people an individual affected and influenced in his life continue to help or harm him years after his passing. Sins can affect the world long after they were committed, and people are forever held accountable for the results of their sins. Conversely, they forever reap the benefits of their noble actions.
Our Link To Generations Past
Rav Soloveitchik asked: Why is there a long-standing tradition to hold a sefer Torah when saying “Kel Molei Rachamim” in shul? He answered as follows:
Among the Avos, only Yaakov Avinu is called “saba.” He is referred to as such (in a Midrash) because he was the only one of the Avos who studied Torah with his grandchildren. He taught Ephraim and Menashe the divine traditions he inherited from his father.
The Rambam affectionately referred to two people as “rebbe mori”: the Rif and the Radak. The Rif died when the Rambam was a baby, and the Radak died before the Rambam was even born! So how were they his teachers? Because he studied and mastered their way of learning Torah.
Two hundred years after Rashi passed away, the Ba’alei Tosafos wrote “Rabbenu HaKadosh” in reference to him. What child doesn’t think of Rashi as a wonderful and kind gentle zeide holding his hand and helping him understand Chumash? What yeshiva student doesn’t rely on Rashi to help him with a difficult piece of Gemara?
A sefer Torah is held for “Kel Molei Rachamim” because it connects us to all generations – in the past, present, and future. Hashem’s Torah is what connects all Jews all around the world for all time.
Don’t Be Ungrateful
As a young boy growing up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, I remember seeing people crying in shul during Ne’ilah. Why did they cry at that point?
Rav Soloveitchik said that when he was a boy, his father pointed out sunset to him one Yom Kippur and asked him, “What’s the difference between this sunset and any other sunset during the entire calendar year?” He then answered: “This sunset brings forgiveness to the world. This is the time when the kaparah of Yom Kippur takes place.”
During Ne’ilah, in the final viduy, we say,“Va’t’lamdeinu Hashem Elokenu, l’hisvados lifanecha al kol avonoseinu l’ma’an nechdal mei’oshek yadeinu – And You have taught us, Hashem, our G-d, to confess before You regarding all of our sins for the purpose of stopping our hands from oshek.”
Oshek is a negative mitzvah, adjuring us from withholding a worker’s wages past sunset. Rav Soloveitchik asked: Why – of all the sins in the Torah – do we single out oshek at a time like Ne’ilah?
He answered that oshek in this context refers to “withholding wages” from Hashem. If we only knew how much we owe G-d every single day, we would never sin. The root of sin is forgeting who is responsible for everything we earn, accumulate, and accomplish – our health, wealth, families, etc. All of these are blessings from the Ribbono shel Olam. By recalling this vital fact during Ne’ilah, we can stand before Him and ask that we be inscribed for a happy, healthy, and peaceful year.